So I’ve been thinking about audio description as technical communication, and in particular the value that an audio description assignment might have for technical communication undergrads. According to the BBC’s Ouch!, audio description

is an extra audio commentary for blind or partially sighted people. When there is a gap in the dialogue on TV or at the theatre, for instance, an extra voice jumps in to explain anything visual going on so that visually impaired people can follow the plot.

For an example of audio description, see this audio described and captioned trailer for Horton Hears a Who!.

The task of audio describing a video presents a number of challenges for TC students:

  • how to accommodate technology to a specific group of users. Accommodating technology to users, making it usable and accessible — that’s what technical communication is all about. But just as captions can improve the experiences of all users (not just people who are deaf or hard of hearing), so too can audio descriptions, when done well, provide added value for a wider range of users (ideally not just blind or partially sighted users).
  • how to negotiate and appreciate the differences between visual and oral modes of communication. Translating video into audio is no small task, and thus holds the potential, I would suggest, to address a number of our programmatic learning goals (e.g. teaching students to be sensitive to the affordances and limitations of different media when designing documents).
  • how to work within a set of hard constraints. Technical communicators often work on documents that do not originate or end at their desks. They must regularly coordinate and negotiate with others. With audio descriptions, many of the constraints are inflexible. Both the original video and audio tracks are not open for editing, so any good audio description must be seamlessly inserted into the open spaces between turns of dialogue or other important sounds. The spaces available for “colonization” can be extremely limited in scenes that are dialogue-heavy or action-packed.
  • how to write and speak both creatively and concisely at the same time. In a text marked for audio description, space is limited, sometimes impressively so, and any good audio description must be both concise and appropriately descriptive. The tension between concision and description is one we might profitably exploit in our technical writing classrooms.

To be continued, perhaps in one of my fall TC courses…